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  1. Krishna's Description of the Varnashrama System
  2. Description of Varnashrama-dharma

17. Krishna's Description of the Varnasrama System

Uddhava said: Dear Lord, previously you described the principles of devotional service that are to be practiced by followers of the varnasrama system and even ordinary, unregulated human beings. Dear lotus-eyed Lord, now please explain to me how all human beings can achieve loving service unto you by the execution of their prescribed duties. (17.1-2)

Dear Lord, mighty-armed one, previously in your form of Hamsa you spoke to Brahma those religious principles that bring supreme happiness to the practitioner. Dear Madhava, now much time has passed, and that which you previously instructed will soon practically cease to exist, subduer of the enemy. (17.3-4)

Dear Acyuta, there is no speaker, creator and protector of supreme religious principles other than you, either on the earth or even in the assembly of Brahma, where the personified Vedas reside. Thus, dear Madhusudana, when you, who are the very creator, protector and speaker of spiritual knowledge, abandon the earth, who will again speak this lost knowledge? (17.5-6)

Therefore, my Lord, since you are the knower of all religious principles, please describe to me the human beings who may execute the path of loving service to you and how such service is to be rendered. (17.7)

Sukadeva said: Uddhava, the best of devotees, thus inquired from the Lord. Hearing his question, the Lord, Krishna, was pleased and for the welfare of all conditioned souls spoke those religious principles that are eternal. (17.8)

The Lord said: Dear Uddhava, your question is faithful to religious principles and thus gives rise to the highest perfection in life, pure devotional service, for both ordinary human beings and the followers of the varnasrama system. Now please learn from me those supreme religious principles. (17.9)

In the beginning, in Satya-yuga, there is only one social class, called hamsa, to which all human beings belong. In that age all people are unalloyed devotees of the Lord from birth, and thus learned scholars call this first age Krta-yuga, or the age in which all religious duties are perfectly fulfilled. (17.10)

In Satya-yuga the undivided Veda is expressed by the syllable om, and I am the only object of mental activities. I become manifest as the four-legged bull of religion, and thus the inhabitants of Satya-yuga, fixed in austerity and free from all sins, worship me as Hamsa. (17.11)

Greatly fortunate one, at the beginning of Treta-yuga Vedic knowledge appeared from my heart, which is the abode of the air of life, in three divisions – as Rig, Sama and Yajur. Then from that knowledge I appeared as threefold sacrifice. (17.12)

In Treta-yuga the four social orders were manifested from the universal form of the Lord. The Brahmins appeared from the Lord's face, the ksatriyas from the Lord's arms, the vaisyas from the Lord's thighs and the sudras from the legs of that mighty form. Each social division was recognized by its particular duties and behaviour. (17.13)

The married order of life appeared from the loins of my universal form, and the celibate students came from my heart. The forest-dwelling retired order of life appeared from my chest, and the renounced order of life was situated within the head of my universal form. (17.14)

The various occupational and social divisions of human society appeared according to inferior and superior natures manifest in the situation of the individual's birth. (17.15)

Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, cleanliness, satisfaction, tolerance, simple straightforwardness, devotion to me, mercy and truthfulness are the natural qualities of the Brahmins. (17.16)

Dynamic power, bodily strength, determination, heroism, tolerance, generosity, great endeavour, steadiness, devotion to the Brahmins and leadership are the natural qualities of the ksatriyas. (17.17)

Faith in Vedic civilization, dedication to charity, freedom from hypocrisy, service to the Brahmins and perpetually desiring to accumulate more money are the natural qualities of the vaisyas. (17.18)

Service without duplicity to the Brahmins, cows, gods and other worshipable personalities, and complete satisfaction with whatever income is obtained in such service, are the natural qualities of sudras. (17.19)

Dirtiness, dishonesty, thievery, faithlessness, useless quarrel, lust, anger and hankering constitute the nature of those in the lowest position outside the varnasrama system. (17.20)

Nonviolence, truthfulness, honesty, desire for the happiness and welfare of all others and freedom from lust, anger and greed constitute duties for all members of society. (17.21)

The twice-born member of society achieves second birth through the sequence of purificatory ceremonies culminating in Gayatri initiation. Being summoned by the spiritual master, he should reside within the guru's asrama and with a self-controlled mind carefully study the Vedic literature. (17.22)

The brahmachari should regularly dress with a belt of straw and deerskin garments. He should wear matted hair, carry a rod and waterpot and be decorated with aksa beads and a sacred thread. Carrying pure kusa grass in his hand, he should never accept a luxurious or sensuous sitting place. He should not unnecessarily polish his teeth, nor should he bleach and iron his clothes. (17.23)

A brahmachari should always remain silent while bathing, eating, attending sacrificial performances, chanting japa or passing stool and urine. He should not cut his nails and hair, including the armpit and pubic hair. (17.24)

One observing the vow of celibate brahmachari life should never pass semen. If the semen by chance spills out by itself, the brahmachari should immediately take bath in water, control his breath by pranayama and chant the Gayatri mantra (17.25)

Purified and fixed in consciousness, the brahmachari should worship the fire-god, sun, acarya, cows, Brahmins, guru, elderly respectable persons and gods. He should perform such worship at sunrise and sunset, without speaking but by silently chanting or murmuring the appropriate mantras. (17.26)

One should know the acarya as Myself and never disrespect him in any way. One should not envy him, thinking him an ordinary man, for he is the representative of all the gods. (17.27)

In the morning and evening one should collect foodstuffs and other articles and deliver them to the spiritual master. Then, being self-controlled, one should accept for oneself that which is allotted by the acarya. (17.28)

While engaged in serving the spiritual master one should remain as a humble servant, and thus when the guru is walking the servant should humbly walk behind. When the guru lies down to sleep, the servant should also lie down nearby, and when the guru has awakened, the servant should sit near him, massaging his lotus feet and rendering other, similar services. When the guru is sitting down on his asana, the servant should stand nearby with folded hands, awaiting the guru's order. In this way one should always worship the spiritual master. (17.29)

Until the student has completed his Vedic education he should remain engaged in the asrama of the spiritual master, should remain completely free of material sense gratification and should not break his vow of celibacy [brahmacarya). (17.30)

If the brahmachari student desires to ascend to the Maharloka or Brahmaloka planets, then he should completely surrender his activities to the spiritual master and, observing the powerful vow of perpetual celibacy, dedicate himself to superior Vedic studies. (17.31)

Thus enlightened in Vedic knowledge by service to the spiritual master, freed from all sins and duality, one should worship me as the Supersoul, as I appear within fire, the spiritual master, one's own self and all living entities. (17.32)

Those who are not married – sannyasis, vanaprasthas and brahmacharis – should never associate with women by glancing, touching, conversing, joking or sporting. Neither should they ever associate with any living entity engaged in sexual activities. (17.33)

Dear Uddhava, general cleanliness, washing the hands, bathing, performing religious services at sunrise, noon and sunset, worshiping me, visiting holy places, chanting japa, avoiding that which is untouchable, uneatable or not to be discussed, and remembering my existence within all living entities as the Supersoul – these principles should be followed by all members of society through regulation of the mind, words and body. (17.34-35)

A Brahmin observing the great vow of celibacy becomes brilliant like fire and by serious austerity burns to ashes the propensity to perform material activities. Free from the contamination of material desire, he becomes my devotee. (17.36)

A brahmachari who has completed his Vedic education and desires to enter household life should offer proper remuneration to the spiritual master, bathe, cut his hair, put on proper clothes, and so on. Then, taking permission from the guru, he should go back to his home. (17.37)

A brahmachari desiring to fulfill his material desires should live at home with his family, and a householder who is eager to purify his consciousness should enter the forest, whereas a purified Brahmin should accept the renounced order of life. One who is not surrendered to me should move progressively from one asrama to another, never acting otherwise. (17.38)

One who desires to establish family life should marry a wife of his own caste, who is beyond reproach and younger in age. If one desires to accept many wives he must marry them after the first marriage, and each wife should be of a successively lower caste. (17.39)

All twice-born men – Brahmins, ksatriyas and vaisyas – must perform sacrifice, study the Vedic literature and give charity. Only the Brahmins, however, accept charity, teach the Vedic knowledge and perform sacrifice on behalf of others. (17.40)

A Brahmin who considers that accepting charity from others will destroy his austerity, spiritual influence and fame should maintain himself by the other two brahminical occupations, namely teaching Vedic knowledge and performing sacrifice. If the Brahmin considers that those two occupations also compromise his spiritual position, then he should collect rejected grains in agricultural fields and live without any dependence on others. (17.41)

The body of a Brahmin is not intended to enjoy insignificant material sense gratification; rather, by accepting difficult austerities in his life, a Brahmin will enjoy unlimited happiness after death. (17.42)

A Brahmin householder should remain satisfied in mind by gleaning rejected grains from agricultural fields and marketplaces. Keeping himself free of personal desire, he should practice magnanimous religious principles, with consciousness absorbed in me. In this way a Brahmin may stay at home as a householder without very much attachment and thus achieve liberation. (17.43)

Just as a ship rescues those who have fallen into the ocean, similarly, I very quickly rescue from all calamities those persons who uplift Brahmins and devotees suffering in a poverty-stricken condition. (17.44)

Just as the chief bull elephant protects all other elephants in his herd and defends himself as well, similarly, a fearless king, just like a father, must save all of the citizens from difficulty and also protect himself. (17.45)

An earthly king who protects himself and all citizens by removing all sins from his kingdom will certainly enjoy with Indra in airplanes as brilliant as the sun. (17.46)

If a Brahmin cannot support himself through his regular duties and is thus suffering, he may adopt the occupation of a merchant and overcome his destitute condition by buying and selling material things. If he continues to suffer extreme poverty even as a merchant, then he may adopt the occupation of a ksatriya, taking sword in hand. But he cannot in any circumstances become like a dog, accepting an ordinary master. (17.47)

A king or other member of the royal order who cannot maintain himself by his normal occupation may act as a vaisya, may live by hunting or may act as a Brahmin by teaching others Vedic knowledge. But he may not under any circumstances adopt the profession of a sudra. (17.48)

A vaisya, or mercantile man, who cannot maintain himself may adopt the occupation of a sudra, snd a sudra who cannot find a master can engage in simple activities like making baskets and mats of straw. However, all members of society who have adopted inferior occupations in emergency situations must give up those substitute occupations when the difficulties have passed. (17.49)

One in the grhastha order of life should daily worship the sages by Vedic study, the forefathers by offering the mantra svadha, the gods by chanting svaha, all living entities by offering shares of one's meals, and human beings by offering grains and water. Thus considering the gods, sages, forefathers, living entities and human beings to be manifestations of my potency, one should daily perform these five sacrifices. (17.50)

A householder should comfortably maintain his dependents either with money that comes of its own accord or with that gathered by honest execution of one's duties. According to one's means, one should perform sacrifices and other religious ceremonies. (17.51)

A householder taking care of many dependent family members should not become materially attached to them, nor should he become mentally unbalanced, considering himself to be the lord. An intelligent householder should see that all possible future happiness, just like that which he has already experienced, is temporary. (17.52)

The association of children, wife, relatives and friends is just like the brief meeting of travelers. With each change of body one is separated from all such associates, just as one loses the objects one possesses in a dream when the dream is over. (17.53)

Deeply considering the actual situation, a liberated soul should live at home just like a guest, without any sense of proprietorship or false ego. In this way he will not be bound or entangled by domestic affairs. (17.54)

A householder devotee who worships me by execution of his family duties may remain at home, go to a holy place or, if he has a responsible son, take sannyasa. (17.55)

But a householder whose mind is attached to his home and who is thus disturbed by ardent desires to enjoy his money and children, who is lusty after women, who is possessed of a miserly mentality and who unintelligently thinks, "Everything is mine and I am everything," is certainly bound in illusion. (17.56)

"my poor elderly parents, and my wife with a mere infant in her arms, and my other young children! Without me they have absolutely no one to protect them and will suffer unbearably. How can my poor relatives possibly live without me?" (17.57)

Thus, because of his foolish mentality, a householder whose heart is overwhelmed by family attachment is never satisfied. Constantly meditating on his relatives, he dies and enters into the darkness of ignorance. (17.58)


18. Description of Varnasrama-dharma

The Lord said: One who desires to adopt the third order of life, vanaprastha, should enter the forest with a peaceful mind, leaving his wife with his mature sons, or else taking her along with him. (18.1)

Having adopted the vanaprastha order of life, one should arrange one's sustenance by eating uncontaminated bulbs, roots and fruits that grow in the forest. One may dress oneself with tree bark, grass, leaves or animal skins. (18.2)

The vanaprastha should not groom the hair on his head, body or face, should not manicure his nails, should not pass stool and urine at irregular times and should not make a special endeavour for dental hygiene. He should be content to take bath in water three times daily and should sleep on the ground. (18.3)

Thus engaged as a vanaprastha, one should execute penance during the hottest summer days by subjecting oneself to burning fires on four sides and the blazing sun overhead; during the rainy season one should remain outside, subjecting oneself to torrents of rain; and in the freezing winter one should remain submerged in water up to one's neck. (18.4)

One may eat foodstuffs prepared with fire, such as grains, or fruits ripened by time. One may grind one's food with mortar and stone or with one's own teeth. (18.5)

The vanaprastha should personally collect whatever he requires for his bodily maintenance, carefully considering the time, place and his own capacity. He should never collect provisions for the future. (18.6)

One who has accepted the vanaprastha order of life should perform seasonal sacrifices by offering oblations of caru and sacrificial cakes prepared from rice and other grains found in the forest. The vanaprastha, however, may never offer animal sacrifices to me, even those sacrifices mentioned in the Vedas. (18.7)

The vanaprastha should perform the agnihotra, darsa and paurnamasa sacrifices, as he did while in the grhastha-asrama. He should also perform the vows and sacrifices of caturmasya, since all of these rituals are enjoined for the vanaprastha-asrama by expert knowers of the Vedas. (18.8)

The saintly vanaprastha, practicing severe penances and accepting only the bare necessities of life, becomes so emaciated that he appears to be mere skin and bones. Thus worshiping me through severe penances, he goes to the Maharloka planet and then directly achieves me. (18.9)

One who with long endeavour executes this painful but exalted penance, which awards ultimate liberation, simply to achieve insignificant sense gratification must be considered the greatest fool. (18.10)

If the vanaprastha is overtaken by old age and because of his trembling body is no longer able to execute his prescribed duties, he should place the sacrificial fire within his heart by meditation. Then, fixing his mind on me, he should enter into the fire and give up his body. (18.11)

If the vanaprastha, understanding that even promotion to Brahmaloka is a miserable situation, develops complete detachment from all possible results of fruitive activities, then he may take the sannyasa order of life. (18.12)

Having worshiped me according to scriptural injunctions and having given all one's property to the sacrificial priest, one should place the fire sacrifice within oneself. Thus, with the mind completely detached, one should enter the sannyasa order of life. (18.13)

"This man taking sannyasa is going to surpass us and go back home, back to Godhead." Thus thinking, the gods create stumbling blocks on the path of the sannyasi by appearing before him in the shape of his former wife or other women and attractive objects. But the sannyasi should pay the gods and their manifestations no heed. (18.14)

If the sannyasi desires to wear something besides a mere kaupina, he may use another cloth around his waist and hips to cover the kaupina. Otherwise, if there is no emergency, he should not accept anything besides his danda and waterpot. (18.15)

A saintly person should step or place his foot on the ground only after verifying with his eyes that there are no living creatures, such as insects, who might be injured by his foot. He should drink water only after filtering it through a portion of his cloth, and he should speak only words that possess the purity of truth. Similarly, he should perform only those activities his mind has carefully ascertained to be pure. (18.16)

One who has not accepted the three internal disciplines of avoiding useless speech, avoiding useless activities and controlling the life air can never be considered a sannyasi merely because of his carrying bamboo rods. (18.17)

Rejecting those houses that are polluted and untouchable, one should approach without previous calculation seven houses and be satisfied with that which is obtained there by begging. According to necessity, one may approach each of the four occupational orders of society. (18.18)

Taking the food gathered through begging, one should leave the populated areas and go to a reservoir of water in a secluded place. There, having taken a bath and washed one's hands thoroughly, one should distribute portions of the food to others who may request it. One should do this without speaking. Then, having thoroughly cleansed the remnants, one should eat everything on one's plate, leaving nothing for future consumption. (18.19)

Without any material attachment, with senses fully controlled, remaining enthusiastic, and satisfied in realization of the Supreme Lord and his own self, the saintly person should travel about the earth alone. Having equal vision everywhere, he should be steady on the spiritual platform. (18.20)

Dwelling in a safe and solitary place, his mind purified by constant thought of me, the sage should concentrate on the soul alone, realizing it to be nondifferent from me. (18.21)

By steady knowledge a sage should clearly ascertain the nature of the soul's bondage and liberation. Bondage occurs when the senses are deviated to sense gratification, and complete control of the senses constitutes liberation. (18.22)

Therefore, completely controlling the five senses and the mind by Krishna consciousness, a sage, having experienced spiritual bliss within the self, should live detached from insignificant material sense gratification. (18.23)

The sage should travel in sanctified places, by flowing rivers and within the solitude of mountains and forests. He should enter the cities, towns and pasturing grounds and approach ordinary working men only to beg his bare sustenance. (18.24)

One in the vanaprastha order of life should always practice taking charity from others, for one is thereby freed from illusion and quickly becomes perfect in spiritual life. Indeed, one who subsists on food grains obtained in such u humble manner purifies his existence. (18.25)

One should never see as ultimate reality those material things which obviously will perish. With consciousness free from material attachment, one should retire from all activities meant for material progress in this life and the next. (18.26)

One should logically consider the universe, which is situated within the Lord, and one's own material body, which is composed of mind, speech and life air, to be ultimately products of the Lord's illusory energy. Thus situated in the self, one should give up one's faith in these things and should never again make them the object of one's meditation. (18.27)

A learned transcendentalist dedicated to the cultivation of knowledge and thus detached from external objects, or my devotee who is detached even from desire for liberation – both neglect those duties based on external rituals or paraphernalia. Thus their conduct is beyond the range of rules and regulations. (18.28)

Although most wise, the paramahamsa should enjoy life like a child, oblivious to honour and dishonour; although most expert, he should behave like a stunted, incompetent person; although most learned, he should speak like an insane person; and although a scholar learned in Vedic regulations, he should behave in an unrestricted manner. (18.29)

A devotee should never engage in the fruitive rituals mentioned in the karma-kanda section of the Vedas, nor should he become atheistic, acting or speaking in opposition to Vedic injunctions. Similarly, he should never speak like a mere logician or skeptic or take any side whatsoever in useless arguments. (18.30)

A saintly person should never let others frighten or disturb him and, similarly, should never frighten or disturb other people. He should tolerate the insults of others and should never himself belittle anyone. He should never create hostility with anyone for the sake of the material body, for he would thus be no better than an animal. (18.31)

The one Supreme Lord is situated within all material bodies and within everyone's soul. Just as the moon is reflected in innumerable reservoirs of water, the Supreme Lord, although one, is present within everyone. Thus every material body is ultimately composed of the energy of the one Supreme Lord. (18.32)

If at times one does not obtain proper food one should not be depressed, and when one obtains sumptuous food one should not rejoice. Being fixed in determination, one should understand both situations to be under the control of God. (18.33)

If required, one should endeavour to get sufficient foodstuffs, because it is always necessary and proper to maintain one's health. When the senses, mind and life air are fit, one can contemplate spiritual truth, and by understanding the truth one is liberated. (18.34)

A sage should accept the food, clothing and bedding – be they of excellent or inferior quality – that come of their own accord. (18.35)

Just as I, the Supreme Lord, execute regulative duties by my own free will, similarly, one who has realized knowledge of me should maintain general cleanliness, purify his hands with water, take bath and execute other regulative duties not by force but by his own free will. (18.36)

A realized soul no longer sees anything as separate from me, for his realized knowledge of me has destroyed such illusory perception. Since the material body and mind were previously accustomed to this kind of perception, it may sometimes appear to recur; but at the time of death the self-realized soul achieves opulences equal to Mine. (18.37)

One who is detached from sense gratification, knowing its result to be miserable, and who desires spiritual perfection, but who has not seriously analyzed the process for obtaining me, should approach a bona fide and learned spiritual master. (18.38)

Until a devotee has clearly realized spiritual knowledge, he should continue with great faith and respect and without envy to render personal service to the guru, who is nondifferent from me. (18.39)

One who has not controlled the six forms of illusion [lust, anger, greed, excitement, false pride and intoxication), whose intelligence, the leader of the senses, is extremely attached to material things, who is bereft of knowledge and detachment, who adopts the sannyasa order of life to make a living, who denies the worshipable gods, his own self and the Supreme Lord within himself, thus ruining all religious principles, and who is still infected by material contamination, is deviated and lost both in this life and the next. (18.40-41)

The main religious duties of a sannyasi are equanimity and nonviolence, whereas for the vanaprastha austerity and philosophical understanding of the difference between the body and soul are prominent. The main duties of a householder are to give shelter to all living entities and perform sacrifices, and the brahmachari is mainly engaged in serving the spiritual master. (18.42)

A householder may approach his wife for sex only at the time prescribed for begetting children. Otherwise, the householder should practice celibacy, austerity, cleanliness of mind and body, satisfaction in his natural position, and friendship toward all living entities. Worship of me is to be practiced by all human beings, regardless of social or occupational divisions. (18.43)

One who worships me by his prescribed duty, having no other object of worship, and who remains conscious of me as present in all living entities, achieves unflinching devotional service unto me. (18.44)

Dear Uddhava, I am the Supreme Lord of all worlds, and I create and destroy this universe, being its ultimate cause. I am thus the Absolute Truth, and one who worships me with unfailing devotional service comes to me. (18.45)

Thus, one who has purified his existence by execution of his prescribed duties, who fully understands my supreme position and who is endowed with scriptural and realized knowledge, very soon achieves me. (18.46)

Those who are followers of this varnasrama system accept religious principles according to authorized traditions of proper conduct. When such varnasrama duties are dedicated to me in loving service, they award the supreme perfection of life. (18.47)

Dear saintly Uddhava, I have now described to you, just as you inquired, the means by which my devotee, perfectly engaged in his prescribed duty, can come back to me, the Lord. (18.48)



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